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Chief Smith answers residents' questions

Speed enforcement, communication concerns highlight first Alton PD forum

March 04, 2009
ALTON — Enforcement of local speed limits and improved communication with the public were the issues foremost on the minds of residents who attended the first of what Alton Police Chief Phil Smith hoped would become a monthly series of community forums with department personnel last week.

Explaining that the idea of monthly forums had been inspired by his belief in community policing (the philosophy that support from and interaction with the public can help clamp down on crime within a community), Smith informed the small group of local residents who gathered at the Gilman Museum on April 15 that he hoped the forums would facilitate an on-going dialogue between the department and community members, and provide for a friendly exchange of ideas.

Commenting that she felt Alton residents were "getting things via the grapevine" rather than through official channels, Nancy Merrill asked why Smith had not considered publishing a weekly police log in local newspapers, as the Rochester Police Department does.

Smith explained that the department's clerical staff had just come back up to full strength the previous week after being bogged down by a law suit, and that he planned to start posting a weekly activity log on the department's Web site and sending it to local media outlets shortly.

Advising those present to expect substantial improvements to the Web site within the next two to three weeks, Smith said he planned to post his 22-page long-term strategic plan online, as well.

Explaining that she had been prevented from returning home after a holiday dinner with family Easter Sunday due to the fire at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center, Merrill asked whether Smith planned to work with the fire department to develop a plan for residents who are forced to leave their homes or are unable to return to them during emergencies.

"I had no place to go," she said, adding that she had been forced to wait hours in the cold along with other residents of the area.

Joking that, "the only thing we haven't had here is locusts," Smith replied that an emergency plan was in the process of being finalized, and that there was an evacuation plan in place, with Prospect Mountain High School designated as the town's emergency shelter.

Merrill suggested that the plan be published in local newspapers.

Asked by resident Dorothye Wentworth to confirm whether there would be any stimulus money coming to Alton's Police Department, Smith said that with one of his full-time officers planning to retire in 24 months, he had put in for a $250,000 stimulus grant that would cover the salary and benefits for a replacement for up to three years.

Following up on her previous question, Wentworth asked how the department stacked up against those in surrounding towns in terms of pay scale and manpower.

Explaining that he felt the department was right where it should be, Smith said that Alton currently has 11 full-time officers, a number comparable to most surrounding communities.

"I think we're good right now," he said, explaining that the number of full-time officers needed to patrol a community is determined by the population and the level of activity within the community.

Alton, he said, is currently neck-and-neck with Belmont as the second-busiest community in Laconia District Court, behind only Laconia itself.

Wentworth commented that she had asked at a selectmen's meeting several months ago for the police department to publish information on a series of break-ins around town, and had yet to see anything about the case in the local press.

Smith replied that the break-ins were not centered in one specific area, leading him to believe that they were the work of opportunists, and not professionals.

Although the department has to prioritize in such situations, and cannot assign a task force to the case with everything else going on in town, he said, neighborhood watch groups could help to keep the citizenry more informed.

"Sometimes, a little paranoia is good," he said, urging residents in neighborhoods that experience break-ins to keep an eye out for unfamiliar vehicles, and jot down license plate numbers.

"Stop our speeders"

New Durham Road resident Bill Chappell attended last week's forum to ask for Smith's assistance on an issue he jokingly abbreviated as "S.O.S. (Stop Our Speeders)."

Explaining that he had received a "great response" from the department in the past when asking for extra patrols on New Durham Road (where he said drivers have little or no regard for the 25 mph speed limit, and in many cases don't realize they're speeding), Chappell voiced concern about whether warnings "do the job," and suggested that if drivers were to receive tickets on the first offense, they might pay more attention to their speed.

Another area of concern for Chappell was Main Street, where he said residents often take a risk by simply opening their car doors because of the excessive speed at which some vehicles travel through the center of town.

Stating that targeted patrols had produced "outstanding" results in the past, Smith explained that the majority of drivers stopped for speeding reside on the road in question.

Drivers who aren't aware that they're speeding, he added, don't notice because they drive that way normally, and a warning is often enough to make them more conscious of their speed.

"A warning is for the guy who … that's the only interaction he has with the police department in his life," he said.

"What about the ones who don't get stopped?" Chappell asked."

"We can't stop them all," Smith replied, encouraging Chappell to let the department know where he would like to see targeted patrols.

Commenting that vehicles traveling along Main Street often do not yield to pedestrians at the crosswalks, Merrill asked whether it would be possible for the department to have a stronger presence in the center of town.

Smith said he would station a motorcycle patrol on Main Street.

Responding to one resident's concerns about the potential effect of strict enforcement when "people generally drive five miles over," Smith said the "number one" complaint about motor vehicle enforcement in any community is inconsistency.

Explaining that he considered traffic violations an error in judgment ("an error of the heart, not an error of the head"), and that his personal threshold used to be 15 mph over the posted speed limit (with the exception of school zones), Smith said he would not expect to see enforcement at five miles over.

If presented with a ticket issued to someone for driving five miles over the posted limit, he said, "I would have a hard time with it … I would have to find out why that ticket was there. There's got to be a reason for it."

A minor amount of leeway also has to be given due to the inaccuracy of most speedometers, he added.

Voicing concern about drivers on Route 28 failing to slow down at the flashing yellow light that marks the entrance to Prospect Mountain High School, and about the fact that students leaving school for the day have a tendency to tear out onto Route 28 (often squealing their tires in the process), resident Marty Cornelissen asked whether that section of roadway fell under local or state jurisdiction.

Replying that it currently falls primarily to the Alton Police Department to patrol Route 28, Smith said he could ask the school resource officer to park near the entrance for a day and monitor the goings-on.

Asked later by Chappell whether it would possible for the department to station an officer in plain clothes on Main Street to monitor traffic, Smith said the department's oldest cruiser is currently being stripped of its exterior markings and converted into an undercover surveillance and enforcement vehicle that will be used primarily by Det. Eric Borge.

Officer attitudes

Stating that she had heard several complaints recently about the attitudes of some officers, Merrill said she had been driving with someone who was stopped for not turning their high beams off quickly enough while passing a cruiser.

"I was surprised by the lack of respect" shown to the driver, she said, adding that some people might take their negative experiences with the police department with them to the polls on Election Day.

Replying that he found it "disappointing that someone would take that to the polls," Smith said he had tried to instill in his staff the same lesson that was drilled into him during his days as an officer: "You treat [people] the way you'd want your family treated."

Commenting that, "50 percent is the receiver," Smith explained that if an individual stopped by a police officer feels that he or she has done nothing wrong, "it really up-ends them."

Officers tend to go into "performance mode" during traffic stops (particularly at night, when their safety might be at stake), and might sometimes come across as brusque because of that, he said.

"Some people aren't going to get burped and powdered at a stop," he added. "That's just the way it is."

Rejecting the possibility that she or the driver might have overreacted, Merrill said the officer's unnecessarily harsh tone of voice was what had bothered her.

Smith assured Merrill that he deals thoroughly with any abuse-of-power incidents he hears about, and said he was confident that there were no "rogues" on his department.

Future forums

Asked by Cornelissen whether he planned to host future community forums himself, or turn them over to other officers, Smith said he wanted to handle "the first couple," but planned to ask some of the specially-trained officers on the staff (such as K-9 Officer Christian Johnson) to step forward and run their own forums.

He had encouraged all his officers to attend community events, he said, believing that "it's good for the community to see [them] on a non-enforcement level."

The next forum has been scheduled for Thursday, May 21, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Gilman Museum.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord Osman
Tilton School
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